- The Afterlife of the Leiden Anatomical Collections: Hands On, Hands Off by Hieke Huistra
Anatomical collections were long overlooked in accounts of the history of modern medicine. The even ghastlier pantry to Claude Bernard's "ghastly kitchen," collections did not seem relevant to histories of the birth of the clinic and the laboratory revolution in medicine. More recent scholarship by historians such as Sam Alberti, Erin McLeary, and Jonathan Reinarz has challenged this assumption and prompted a re-evaluation of the role of anatomical collections and museums, highlighting how they continued to play a significant role for medical teaching and medical research in the modern era.1 [End Page 150]
Hieke Huistra's study adds a significant contribution to this scholarship by tracing in detail the fate of the various anatomical collections at the University of Leiden in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Drawing on rich primary sources ranging from student diaries and administrative records to visitor books and floorplans, Huistra reconstructs the uses and trajectories of anatomical preparations across centuries, spaces, and disciplinary boundaries. Key to her study is her understanding of anatomical collections as "dynamic and flexible entities" (p. 2): anatomical preparations are preserved, but that does not make them static objects, rigidly fixed in time. Instead, Huistra stresses, preparations are open to hands-on use and continuous re-interpretation. Her analysis pays close attention to the physical features of the objects themselves, and demonstrates that they were designed for, or appropriated for, interaction and modification. It was precisely this flexibility that enabled collections to continue to play an important role even as research and teaching agendas and methods changed.
The book's first chapter documents students' and teachers' physical interactions with preparations, and the materiality of preparations as pragmatic assemblages of materials as diverse as pig's bladders, wax, tin foil, and recycled glass jars of Kraft grapefruit sections. Such collections allowed for hands-on interaction and complemented clinical training. The second chapter draws on Hans-Jörg Rheinberger's insights into preparations as objects capable of "epistemic recall": made of the very material they represent, preparations enable new generations of scholars to return to old collections with new analytical techniques and research questions.2 Indeed, the collection assembled by Leiden professor Sebald Justinus Brugmans before his death in 1819 was adopted and adapted throughout the nineteenth century by researchers in physical anthropology, pathological anatomy, and comparative anatomy. In the third chapter, Huistra documents the gradual exclusion of lay visitors from Leiden's anatomical collections. Once a visitor attraction for learned and lay publics alike, the collections became less accessible to nonspecialists as they were moved into proximity with newly developed laboratory spaces. What made them more useful to medical researchers and students made them less "visitable" (Rina Knoeff) to lay audiences, both physically and intellectually.3 Where lay visitors could once make sense of the preparation of a malformed child presented as the result of an incompatible marriage, later forms of presentation stripped preparations of such narratives, leaving them unintelligible to most. Indeed, this very inaccessibility supported increasing demarcations of experts from laypeople, [End Page 151] and Dr. van der Mijle's "cheerful" mouse orchestra was banished to the top of a cabinet (p. 114). The final chapter highlights debates around the complex legacy of celebrated scientists' collections—should they remain unchanged to serve as monuments of a long and prestigious scientific tradition, or be broken up and reframed in order to continue active service? Huistra concludes with reflections on anatomical collections today: It is not the technology that makes collections immortal, but their continuing relevance for research and public engagement—and historians can help make the case.
While this is a succinct but detailed study of an individual institution and its collections, Huistra is careful to include comparisons to collections across Europe and the United States throughout her analysis in order to develop broader arguments about the place of anatomical collections in medical education and research, and their...